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'A Lot Of Detective Work': Piecing Together J Dilla's 'The Diary'

What happens to a prolific artist's creative work after they die? Prince's death earlier this year lent particular immediacy to that question. There are reportedly over 1,000 tracks in his Paisley Park vault, and in June, Tidal added 15 Prince albums to its streaming library.

Also this spring, the estate of Detroit hip-hop producer J Dilla released The Diary, the latest in a long string of posthumous albums both authorized and unauthorized. The story of The Diary demonstrates just how complicated finishing an artist's uncompleted work can be.

Even if you're not a hip-hop aficionado, you've likely heard J Dilla's beats on somebody else's record. High-profile artists like De La Soul, Erykah Badu, D'Angelo and The Pharcyde all sought him out in the late '90s and early 2000s. The things that defined his sound — an ear for eclectic samples from across genres, his off-kilter sense of timing — were born of an obsession with music that lasted almost literally from cradle to grave.

"When he was 2 years old, he was spinning records in the park," says Dilla's mother, Maureen "Ma Dukes" Yancey. "With little 45s on his arms, like I got these bracelets. His little arm would be through with 45s the whole way up, and his little Fisher Price turntable."

Even as a toddler, Dilla only ever focused on one thing. "This is all he did," Yancey says. "You'd think that he'd want to incorporate blocks, or the little boy things that we bought, but he wasn't interested in any of that stuff. Only the music."

That focus continued when Dilla was a teenager and then a young adult. Every week, he went to record shops to find new music, then scoured each acquisition for sonic gems — a snare drum here, a horn solo there — that he could repurpose to build his meticulously crafted beats.

Over more than two decades, Dilla's basement studio in his mother's home filled with cassette tapes. He kept working even after he was diagnosed with a rare blood disease at the age of 29. He finished Donuts, the record considered by many fans to be his crowning achievement, on a synthesizer he kept next to his hospital bed. The album came out on his 32nd birthday, just three days before he died.

That's where things got complicated. Dilla left behind a will that named his mother, brother and two infant daughters as his heirs and his manager as the executor of his estate. But he also left hundreds of thousands of dollars in IRS debt. None of the money from record sales could go to his heirs or to pay the costs of his medical bills until that debt was settled, even though his final album was selling better than anyone expected.

"Donuts went from being a record that we were struggling to get ... to a record that we couldn't keep in print," says Eothen Alapatt, a Los Angeles producer who worked closely with Dilla on his final projects.

Alapatt was eventually hired as the creative director of the J Dilla estate. He says that in the year following Dilla's death, no one was sure of what to do, and a lot of his music was scattered. Then, over the following years, J Dilla releases started appearing — on small imprints, from former collaborators and as internet bootlegs. "People started digging into their archives and thinking about ways that it could be repackaged in light of his death, and the celebrity he became," Alapatt says.

Even Dilla's mother and brother released records, against the estate's wishes, and Maureen Yancey set up a separate J Dilla Foundation to keep her son's legacy alive. "We just wanted to keep the music flowing in the hearts and minds of people," she says.

After disagreements over the direction of the estate — and several costly lawsuits — the executor finally resigned. Alex Borden, a California estate attorney, was named the new executor. "One of the tasks that we were faced with was gathering or collecting the various media that existed in the world ... [to] take a look at what we had, catalogue it and determine whether it could be used or exploited to make money," Borden explains.

Before he died, Dilla had worked on a solo album that was originally supposed to come out on MCA Records in 2002. That was the album finally released this spring as The Diary. It was supposed to be his major-label debut as a frontman, rapping over beats produced by other hand-selected collaborators. But in the end, MCA decided to shelve the record before it was finished.

Engineer Dave Cooley, who was eventually brought in to help piece the album together, says that sifting through Dilla's musical archives was like searching for an unpublished novel in someone's house after they'd passed away. "In this drawer we found a few pages, at this desk we found a few pages — scattered all over the house," Cooley says. "Some overlap between things. Things are named strangely. It was a lot of detective work to figure out, okay, which version is the ultimate version that was supposed to end up on The Diary."

Cooley and Alapatt spent the better part of 10 years working with Dilla's collaborators, choosing among versions of each song and stitching together a record that they thought would be as close to Dilla's original vision as possible. Still, the album's release this spring was not welcomed by everyone. Alapatt says some fans wanted another instrumental beat tape. But, he says, "that would be a historical reimagining, rather than seeing through the vision of a maverick genius. This record, The Diary -- even though I see polarizing reaction — is a statement that he wanted to make."

On the other hand, Maureen Yancey did not approve of including one collaborator who'd since fallen out with the family — and she thinks her son would have backed her up. "I think after death, people tend to say that they know what a person wanted," she says. "But ... I raised him and I spent the last days with him. And he died in my arms. And I knew what he would have wanted."

No one can really know whether J Dilla would endorse the albums that have been released since he died. But the fact remains that he's better known now than he was in life. Thanks to Maureen Yancey's efforts, when the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture opens in Washington, D.C., this fall, her son's sampling machine will be there to bear testament to the music he could never stop making.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi is a host and reporter for Planet Money, telling stories that creatively explore and explain the workings of the global economy. He's a sucker for a good supply chain mystery — from toilet paper to foster puppies to specialty pastas. He's drawn to tales of unintended consequences, like the time a well-intentioned chemistry professor unwittingly helped unleash a global market for synthetic drugs, or what happened when the U.S. Patent Office started granting patents on human genes. And he's always on the lookout for economic principles at work in unexpected places, like the tactics comedians use to protect their intellectual property (a.k.a. jokes).